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Belmont Stakes 2014: Notable Jockeys to Watch at Historic Race

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 17:  Victor Espinoza rides atop California Chrome #3 during the post parade for the 139th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 17, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Scott PolacekFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2014

It’s not very often that someone’s job description is literally to prevent history from happening, but that is exactly what the jockeys competing against California Chrome will be tasked with June 7 at the Belmont Stakes.

California Chrome is trying to become the first horse since Affirmed did so in 1978 to win the Triple Crown, and all that is standing in his way is the longest race of the holy trio in horse racing. The exact list of contenders and jockeys set to challenge California Chrome is yet to be etched in stone, but we can venture educated guesses based on various reports

Here is a look at the jockeys to watch at the Belmont Stakes.

 

Victor Espinoza

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 17:  California Chrome #3, ridden by Victor Espinoza, races with the field during the 139th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 17, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

California Chrome has won six races in a row and is on an absolute roll. Much of that credit has to go to jockey Victor Espinoza, who simply knows how to guide the horse to victory. Espinoza was particularly impressive at the Preakness when he avoided the rail from one of the inside positions and steered California Chrome to a rather easy victory.

The jockey has been busy since winning the Preakness, via the Los Angeles Angels’ official Twitter page:

Interestingly, this isn’t Espinoza’s first rodeo under the Triple Crown spotlight.

He led War Emblem to victory in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 2002 and had a late lead in the Belmont Stakes before eventually losing steam. Look for Espinoza to learn from that experience as he runs the 2014 edition of the race.

The Belmont is the longest of the three Triple Crown legs at a mile-and-a-half, which will test California Chrome’s recent blueprint for victories. He has stayed in contention during the middle portions of races and then turned on the jets at the end. 

Espinoza will be careful not to kick start that closing speed too early in the long race, as he may have in 2002, and save some energy for the final stretch. That alone will be enough to carry California Chrome to the historic victory.

 

John Velazquez

LOUISVILLE, KY - APRIL 27:  Intense Holiday, riden by John Velazquez, and We Miss Artie, riden Nick Bush, work out together during the morning exercise session in preparation for the140th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on April 27, 2014 in Louisville,
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

John Velazquez will jockey Ride On Curlin, who just so happens to be one of the biggest challengers to California Chrome after finishing just off the pace in second at the Preakness.

Velazquez has thousands of victories to his credit, but it is one in particular that stands out. He won the 2007 Belmont Stakes aboard Rags to Riches, so he certainly understands what it takes to win at the third leg of the Triple Crown. Whether he can apply that knowledge and guide one of the best horses in the field to victory over California Chrome remains to be seen. 

Velazquez also won the Eclipse Award for outstanding jockey in North America in 2004 and 2005.

 

Mike Smith

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 16: Jockey Mike E. Smith looks on after riding Shanon Nicole #3 in the 90th running of the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 16, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Tested veteran Mike Smith, who is a Hall of Famer and one of the most respected jockeys in the sport, is riding Matuszak at the Belmont.

Much like Velazquez, Smith knows what it takes to win the Belmont because he did so in 2013 aboard Palace Malice. That’s right, the defending jockey champion at the Belmont Stakes is back to defend his crown.

Fellow jockey Gary Stevens praised Smith in the aftermath of that race, according to the Associated Press, via ESPN.com: “Mike rode a superb race. Midway around the turn, I said, 'Well maybe.' But I have ridden long enough to know that he (Oxbow) was going to walk home. To finish second, I am really surprised.” 

Smith also has a Kentucky Derby victory under his belt, so he has performed well under some of the strongest pressure in the sport.

 

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